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Sunita Narain: The agenda for Poznan


Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

The time for postponement is over. The time to cut greenhouse gases is now. Or never.

This week when climate change negotiators from across the world meet in the city of Poznan in Poland for the 14th conference of parties to the climate convention, they have a tough job on hand. They know that the threat of climate change is real and urgent. They also know that combating this threat will require deep and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, which after years of protracted negotiations have not happened. In fact, between 1990 and 2006, carbon dioxide emissions of the industrialised rich countries have increased by 14.5 per cent. In this situation, the only option is to point fingers at the emerging rich countries — from China to India — and to blame their growing industries for the crisis before us.

The question is how does the world move forward? The first agenda in Poznan is, how the world will recommit the industrialised world to serious reduction of its emissions. We need action, hard and fast, not just excuses and small change.

Climate change is about sharing growth between nations and people. It is about creating ecological space. And clearly, this has not happened till date. Forget historical emissions. Between 1980 and 2005, the total emissions of just one country—the US—were almost double that of China and more than seven times that of India. In per capita terms, the injustice is even more unacceptable, indeed immoral. We have seen no real change. No change that we can believe in.

It is here that Poznan must agree to cut to the chase. And not waste more time in finding every way to circumvent the core principles of the climate change agreement — that the rich must reduce so that the poor can grow. This is when the developing world, at the last conference of parties held in Bali, agreed to take on national actions to mitigate emissions. We know that countries like India and China provide the world the opportunity to avoid additional emissions. The reason is that we are still in the process of building our energy, transport or industrial infrastructure. We can make investments in leapfrog technologies so that we can avoid pollution.

We also know it is not in our interest to first pollute and then clean up; or be inefficient and then worry about saving energy. But we also know that high-end technologies needed for energy efficiency and transition to low-carbon futures are costly. It is not as if China and India are bent on first investing in dirty and fuel-inefficient technologies. We invest in these, as the now rich world has done: first add to emissions; make money; then invest in efficiency. We can change this pathway. But the world must give real change. Change we can believe in.

So the second agenda at Poznan, is to agree how the national mitigation actions by developing will be financed and how high-end technologies for big-ticket changes will be transferred. The options are clear. The world should either set up a global trading system based on equal per capita entitlements of every individual. Or agree on a carbon tax (one which hurts) on the developed world, so that the fund can pay for national actions to mitigate emissions including avoiding emissions from deforestation.

The third agenda is to agree on the fund for adaptation, based not on charity, but the right to development of the poor and the victims of climate change. It would be pathetic if the same world, which has spent trillions to bail out its banks and industry, cannot find ways to compensate the victims of its excesses.

Poznan is coming at more significant times — the US election, which has brought in a new president, who has committed in a recent conference to his recalcitrant and renegade country taking on real emission cuts. US President-elect Barack Obama has said that he will bring US emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020. That still means no drastic emission cuts — something that is desperately needed — but much more than what the world was getting from the US till date. But this is also when the world is facing a recession. On one hand, the r-word brings some relief to climate change targets as countries cut fossil fuel use. It also brings the opportunity to use the massive public spending on building a new and different economy. But the reality is that it also brings out even more of the worst, the rich world’s unwillingness to pay for its excesses and to pay for ways to avoid emissions in the emerging world.

But Poznan should also be clear that it is also when the time for postponement is over. It is now. Or never.

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First Published: Fri, December 05 2008. 00:00 IST